Editorial 1
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Skewed perspectives
Letters to the editor


People’s Terror

Through the sheer power of incremental repetition, extremist violence seems to have numbed the response of the Central and state governments into ineffectuality. After killing 21 people in Bihar during the first phase of assembly elections, Naxalites have blown up a vehicle carrying 23 policemen in the tribal Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh. In both states, the incidents are part of a long history of escalating terrorism, led by the People’s War Group and the Maoist Communist Centre. The Naxalites now run a well-coordinated network that spreads over not only these two states, but also includes Andhra Pradesh, eastern Maharashtra and the Kalahandi and Koraput areas in Orissa. Sharing violently extorted funding, armoury and technical knowhow across these states, they have mastered a landmine technology that has repeatedly proved the inadequacy of their principal targets, the police and paramilitary forces. The Bastar massacre illustrates several recurring features of such incidents.

First, although this episode rocked the Madhya Pradesh assembly, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led disruption was conducted in the spirit of partisan opposition, provoking predictable responses from the chief minister, Mr Digvijay Singh. State governments have only dithered and procrastinated over this burgeoning crisis. For instance, the PWG was banned by the Andhra Pradesh government in 1992, legalized in 1995 and banned again in 1996. Similarly, a Rs 18 crore anti-Naxalite plan, sanctioned by the previous BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, was abandoned midway by the present Congress government, only to be revived half-heartedly with minor alterations. This lack of directed motivation has become chronic in the responses of the states and the Centre. This time, too, Mr Singh’s and the Union home ministry’s belated assurances of enacting new laws and convening emergency meetings do not show any departure from this pattern of response. Second, the fatal role of the additional superintendent of police, Bhaskar Deewan, in the blast shows the unpreparedness with which the police confronts this violence. Deewan’s transfer to Bastar seems to have been politically motivated and he did not come with any specialized training equipping him for the tactics he would have to combat in Bastar. He thus led his force to a mission based on information that would have been recognized as spurious by properly trained personnel. Starting with a commitment to revolutionary social change in the 1940s, today’s Naxalites practise a form of terror that is profoundly insensitive to democratic principles and exploits local socio- economic inequalities for its own brutal ends. The state and Central governments will have to implement a strategy that combines relentless and upgraded policing with an understanding of the particular environments that foster this vicious circle of terror and ineptitude.    


Knowing How

Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee this week made a four point appeal to India’s scientists. He argued India had the brainpower to become a knowledge based economic powerhouse. He identified some problems that keep the country from achieving its potential or translating knowhow into development. However, solutions lie not with the scientific community but with government policies. Mr Vajpayee and the Union science and technology minister, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, should look to themselves rather than men in white coats. For example, the prime minister worried India would miss the knowledge revolution. The key lacuna lies in the continuing lack of links between laboratory and factory. Indian scientists largely toil in isolation from Indian business. The main reason is the country’s lack of an intellectual property rights regime. This is a double negative. One, it means scientists cannot profit from their inventions and have no incentive to find practical applications for discoveries. If an Indian scientist wants to make money, he emigrates westward. Two, the lack of product patents allows Indian industry to avoid investing in research. Piracy being essentially legal, it is much easier to steal ideas from overseas. A further disincentive to avoid research expenditure is the protectionist walls surrounding India. Mr Joshi complains science in India is complacent and noncompetitive. This is directly linked to the lack of competition in domestic industry. Even with a half liberalized economy, according to a chamber of commerce study last year, 95 per cent of India’s industrial production continues to be based on imported technology. Swadeshi cum socialist thinking regarding foreign competition and patents only enfeebles India’s science and industry.

The lack of economic incentives associated with a weak patent regime underlies another one of Mr Vajpayee’s complaints. Namely, that fewer and fewer of India’s best and brightest go for scientific careers. The myth strangling Indian science is the belief this is a field that can only be carried out by the state. Private funding and market based incentives provide the bulk of resources that make the United States a scientific superpower. Indians are also saddled with an associated myth — that science is not about material incentives. One result is the absence of synergy between India’s scientists and industrialists. Even the country’s knowledge based industries like software and pharmaceuticals have a poor record of innovation. Changing this requires an environment that applies competitive pressures on companies and offers scientists the chance to make money. Until then, Indian science will stagnate. Nature magazine calculated that from 1981 to 1995, India’s scientific output dropped by a massive 32 per cent. It is a trend that is yet to be reversed.    

“Money has come to the fore,” wrote an American as far back as in 1885 about the new ethos in his country. “It is the romance, the poetry of life.” The sentiment is being echoed here among the upper crust of society 115 years later. There is not enough money, however, to go round for millions of families to buy even the daily necessities of life, for the municipalities to keep cities clear of garbage dumps and prevent all too frequent failures of water and power supplies, for the states to improve the dismal school and health care systems or for the Centre to do anything about sinking deeper into a morass of indebtedness.

For a long time governments, both at the Centre and in the states, have grossly mismanaged their finances. Now that they are in danger of going over the brink, the choice before them is one between bankruptcy and much tighter control over expenditure. Whatever the electoral compulsions, they have to learn to keep the fiscal deficits down to a level where they can avoid the risk of going under. This is why the budget session of Parliament, which has just begun, will be a tough time for the Atal Behari Vajpayee government.

The phrase, “budgetary blues” has a more ominous ring today. Neither the boom in the stock prices of firms in the information technology sector nor the comfortable foreign exchange reserves can be of much avail in creating some order out of the prevailing fiscal chaos. That is reason enough for the government to feel nervous.

No juggling with figures and no cosmetic treatment of what is in effect a crisis situation can offer a way out of hard decisions which cannot but hurt one well-entrenched vested interest or another. The government has been the victim of its populist rhetoric for too long. The time has at last come for it to make amends for its own profligacy and that of its predecessors.

With no soft options available any longer, it will be hard going all the way. With a sedate and demoralized opposition, the government may not find it too difficult to push through Parliament some of its painful decisions which may include substantial cuts in subsidies, disinvestment in the public sector on a larger scale and privatization of services like power distribution and so on, in a bid to bring down the fiscal deficit and create a more propitious climate for investment. But this will not settle the fate of whatever agenda it has in view. Unpopular measures are likely to provoke more than mere whimpers of protest from powerful lobbies and increasing discontent can spill over into the street.

Because of the continuous change it promotes in the relationship between society and the natural environment, the project of modernity always spells uncertainty in the form of unforeseen contingencies. One of the most disorienting features of India’s brush with modernity has been precisely the malignant form taken by the unintended consequences of democratic processes — the bureaucratization of large sectors of the economy, the overload of conflicting demands beyond the state’s capacity to process and the intolerable levels of population growth, environmental degradation, poverty, illiteracy, and violence in public life. No left or right philosophy has any pat answers to these problems.

If the present coalition government at the Centre looks somewhat more stable than its three predecessors, it is not because it is addressing these problems with greater determination and has much to show for its pains. It is more because the Congress is fast turning into a pathetic shadow of its former self, with few regional leaders with sizeable popular bases, and none of the parties in the ruling set-up has anything to gain from rocking the boat. The new government has, however, yet to prove that it can deliver on its promises.

Where do the rows created over the shooting of a film in Varanasi focussing on the plight of Hindu widows, the choice of a venue for a meeting of the Bajrang Dal and the withdrawal of two books approved for publication by the Indian Council for Historical Research fit in the context of the larger problems that confront the country? It will not do to dismiss these as trivial issues that capture the headlines for a day or two. They are important in so far as they betray the mindset of some members of the extended family to which the leading partner in the ruling coalition belongs.

The story of the way the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has rebutted the charge of his organization’s meddling in the government’s business and the prime minister has claimed that the RSS is merely a cultural body is spiked with ironies. The first of these is that, though the public rhetoric of Central ministers is still largely aimed at debunking the Congress and the rest of the opposition, much of the needling to which the government is subjected today comes from zealots of the sangh parivar. The asymmetry of power between different members of the family is the main source of tension between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the rest of the sangh parivar.

The hardliners in the parivar, with a paranoid streak in their thinking, feel let down by the manner in which the BJP has compromised the family’s identity by shelving the core parts of its programme, and are only too keen to seize any opportunity they get to embarrass it. But a large part of this business is a mere charade.

The responsibility of keeping in tow a host of allies, many of them allergic to the very concept of Hindutva, has certainly given Vajpayee much greater room for manoeuvre in dealing with the RSS. Yet, his party could not have made the necessary concessions to its allies without a nod from the RSS whose role as their ideological mentor is acknowledged by all members of the sangh parivar.

Yet, it is not only the constraints imposed by what BJP ideologues call coalition dharma which had made the main proponent of Hindutva maintain an uneasy silence on what for long occupied the top place in its agenda. The logic of democratic politics itself has also done its bit to erode many of its old notions The main purpose of the RSS was to weld the woefully fragmented Hindu society into a political community. Developments beyond its control, however, made it accept the casteist mould into which the new processes at work had recast politics at both central and state levels. This is another irony about which the RSS has been discreetly silent.

In so far as it is concerned with culture, the RSS has little to show for its labours. Its official journals, even when they touch on a cultural issue, give it a gaudy religious colouring. It has done nothing to reverse the steady decline in Sanskrit studies since independence, make good the conspicuous lack of adequate translations in regional languages of crucial ancient literal, philosophical and even religious texts, arrange for proper education of priests the vast majority of whom, at least in the Hindi belt, cannot even pronounce correctly the Vedic mantras they chant at important rituals or set up chairs in Indian culture at all Indian universities as suggested by the late Ananda Coomaraswamy a century ago.

The idea of a national culture is not promoted by equating Hindutva with Indianness. The dynamics of a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society cannot be conjured away so easily.

The overarching concept of a civilizational unity may be essential to national integration. But any effort in this direction can be only self-defeating if it creates new fears, suspicions and antipathies or fails to recognize that neither culture nor civilization is a static entity and both can be kept alive only by coming to terms with the larger forces—global, economic and technological—that are changing patterns of work, leisure, entertainment and consumption everywhere. Our political, economic, internal security and foreign policy problems are also becoming increasingly complicated, in some cases even intractable, because of the transnational processes at work.

It is these processes which are distorting and, in some cases, even pulverizing local cultures. Like the increased mobility of capital and currency across national borders, there is an immense traffic in doctored news, slanted comment, pop music, television serials and sales images by international television networks across national borders. Already such exports of entertainment are preempting an increasing share of the leisure time of the middle classes and even some of the poor in many parts of the developing world.

Since this savvy form of cultural imperialism is too powerful a force to combat, the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture pick on a stray film script or the work of known historians who look at the past from a perspective different from theirs. This serves no cultural purpose. It merely promotes bigotry and establishes a new monopoly on truth. Such tactics cannot be allowed to pass muster in a society where peaceful resolution of highly contentious policy issues can be achieved only through noise-free debate and consensus-building.    


Wealth of a nation

Sir — The Telegraph must be commended for letting poverty make page one headlines: “At 14, Kalahandi’s Bonita was sold. Now, she’s selling herself, part by part” (Feb 21). But what was moving about Bonita Podho’s story was not the description of poverty — India abounds in such stories. It was how, despite her hopeless circumstances, something, an unfathomable instinct perhaps, or an incorruptible sense of being human, made her stick by the blind man to whom she was sold at the age of 14, to care for the three goats she had promised a relative to keep safe, to resist the temptation to beg. How much easier and more understandable it would have been if she had deserted her “husband” or killed the goats for the food her family needed. Can “humanity” be an adequate label for this curious dignity in the face of such overwhelming odds? Politicians always tell us that poverty is the evil root of all India’s troubles, and yet no one really “looks” at the truly poor. Even the media took 15 years to remember Podho again.

Yours faithfully,
J.K. Sen,

Tongue tied

Sir — That the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is perturbed by the sharp “decline” of Hindi is hardly surprising (“People’s English”, Feb 17). After all, the saffron brigade seeks the transformation of multicultural India into a Hindu, Hindi-speaking rashtra. Take the description by the senior functionary of the RSS, K.S. Sudarshan, of India as “Hindi-speaking Bharat”. Sudarshan’s sectarian bias was exposed by his complete indifference to the languages of almost 60 per cent of the population. After imposing the language on Doordarshan, railways, government offices and educational institutions, thus marginalizing all other languages, the Hindi zealots are now ready to take on its real rival, English.

India is the world’s only multilingual democracy where the language of one section of the populace is designated the national language. While English and French are Canada’s two national languages, Switzerland honours all four languages: French, German, Italian and Romansch that are spoken within its territory. Mauritius has a neutral language, English, as its official language, while Israel revived the use of Hebrew to make it the link among the multilingual Jews. India should take a cue from these nations to appreciate better what linguistic democracy is all about.

Making Hindi the national language has resulted in the privileging of a particular linguistic group. Besides, languages have no nationality of their own. If English is a “foreign” language, then so are Bengali and Urdu, since they are spoken in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Besides, India is home to thousands of English-speaking Anglo-Indians. States like Nagaland and Mizoram have designated English as one of their official languages. Rather than abolishing it, English should be made the national language as it is neutral. In the process, no particular state will be privileged, the way speakers of the rajbhasha now are.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee,

Sir —I wonder why scientists took so long to discover that language creates its own geography within the human brain (“English slow on the drawl”, Dec 22). One might understand how this breakthrough will help research in dyslexia, but surely Uta Frith should not have restricted her inquiry to Italian and English only. Other languages should have been included in her research if the findings are to be generally applicable. Sanskrit, for one, could have been considered, for it has a rigidly codified phonetic structure.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra,

Welcome to arms

The article, “On a soldier’s pay” (Feb 7), by Brijesh D. Jayal is right in saying that comparisons should not be made between the salary and perks of soldiers and civilians since the nature of work involved is very different. Earlier, before joining the army, one had to sign a bond for 15 years, in addition to which one had to work for a further five years reserve period. So those who joined the army, usually did so at the age of 18-20, which meant they retired by 38-40 and were young enough to seek further civili